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Novelist Ann Beattie imagines life of Pat Nixon

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 12:02 PM

"Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life" (Scribner), by Ann Beattie

One of the most poignant parts of Ann Beattie's new work, "Mrs. Nixon," is a page at the beginning listing the nicknames of Thelma Catherine Ryan, who was born March 16, 1912. She wanted to be an actress, but her most enduring role was being married to the only U.S. president to resign from office.

Pat Nixon, who chose the name Patricia in college because she believed her given name didn't suit her, had at least 11 nicknames including Starlight, her code name as first lady. The mere fact of so many, when most people go through life with one or two, suggests an elusive, ghostly quality that has proved irresistible to Beattie, one of the most acclaimed short-story writers of the baby-boomer generation.

In that moment when the disgraced Richard Nixon stood in the door of the airplane that would transport him from the White House forever, Beattie writes that she was fascinated by a minor character in the drama: his wife.

"What seemed mysterious was that a specific person had determined her fate," she writes, referring to Nixon, and adding a few chapters later, "My curiosity is based on how little we share in terms of personality, or upbringing, or what fate has dealt us."

So Beattie tries to imagine her life, using photographs and histories of the Watergate era to jog her memory. In the course of her investigation, we find out a few things about Mrs. Nixon — that she was energetic, hardworking, practical, modest, neat and liked clothes and, above all, was a loyal daughter, wife and mother. Yet she never comes alive.

That may not matter to Beattie, a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Virginia, who acknowledges the difficulty of "reading" this former first lady of her mother's generation.

Ultimately, the book is less about Pat Nixon than it is about Beattie, Beattie's favorite writers and Beattie's thoughts about the art and craft of story writing. Which is really too bad. Because once again, "the quietly loyal and enigmatic Mrs. Nixon" disappears.

But if you have ever wondered what it would be like to be in an master's program in creative writing in an American university, this is the book for you.

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